Thousands amass in Baghdad as protests swallow up south
Baghdad: Several thousand Iraqi protesters faced off against security forces in central Baghdad on Thursday, the third day of mass rallies that have left 19 dead as the leaderless protest movement spread to virtually all of the south.
Defying a curfew in place since dawn, they arrived by truckfuls at the capital's oil and industry ministry to protest against corruption, unemployment and poor services.
The apparently leaderless movement has posed the biggest challenge yet to Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who has been in power for less than a year.
The embattled premier ordered a ban on all movement in Baghdad starting at 5:00 am (0200 GMT) Thursday, but it was almost immediately defied by small groups of protesters.
The crowds swelled in the afternoon and pledged to march to the capital's emblematic Tahrir (Liberation) Square.
Most demonstrators carried the Iraqi tricolour while others brandished flags bearing the name of Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson and a revered figure in Shiite Islam, an AFP photographer said.
Riot police and army troops linked arms around ministries and other government buildings, firing tear gas and live rounds into the air in a bid to push the crowds back.
"We will sacrifice our souls and our blood for you, Iraq!" demonstators chanted.
The protests began Tuesday in Baghdad but have since spread across the mainly Shiite south, including the provinces of Dhi Qar, Missan, Najaf, Basra, Wasit and Babylon.
Several cities have imposed curfews, but protesters flooded the streets regardless.
The Kurdish northern regions and Sunni western provinces, meanwhile, have remained relatively calm.
The grievances echo those of mass demonstrations in Iraq's south a little over a year ago which were prompted by a severe water shortage that caused a widespread health crisis.
Since then, southern provinces have accused the central government of failing to address profound infrastructural gaps, chief among them youth unemployment.
Tensions have been exacerbated by the closure of government offices in Baghdad and calls by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for "a general strike".
Sadr was behind the last round of major protests in Baghdad in 2016, when his supporters stormed the Green Zone -- home to some ministries and embassies -- but his involvement appears much more limited this time.
If his followers join the protests en masse, particularly as night falls, the rallies are expected to balloon even further.
The three days of demonstrations have left 19 people dead including one police officer, a toll confirmed by Iraq's Human Rights Commission.
More than 1,000 protesters and security personnel have been wounded. More than half of those killed in the last three days have been in Nasiriyah, about 350 kilometres southeast of Baghdad.
The southern city of Amarah has also seen significant bloodshed, with medics and security sources reporting four protesters shot dead on Thursday.
With internet access virtually shut off, demonstrators on Thursday struggled to communicate with each other or post footage of the latest clashes.
Approximately 75 per cent of Iraq is "offline" after major network operators "intentionally restricted" access, according to cybersecurity monitor NetBlocks.